According to the Pew Research Center, the presence of U.S. active-duty military overseas is the lowest level it’s been in decades. Still, the military has approximately 200,000 active-duty service men and women deployed right now, which amounts to 15 percent of the total military force deployed outside the United States. If you are a military family or a relative or friend of a military family, there’s a good chance you know someone who has been or will be deployed at some point during his or her service in the military.
While deployments are becoming less frequent in the number of service members, nonetheless lengthy separations, regardless of duration, are difficult on military families. The average length of deployments is approximately 8 months, but it’s not uncommon for many service members to remain away from their families for up to a year. Naturally, the distance can create challenges for military families and conflicts–resulting in higher divorce rates–as families deal with the time apart and the service members deal with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, compared to military service members who have not deployed.
But wait, there is hope! There is a specific link between good mental health and keeping in touch with people back home while separated. Indeed, it’s in a service member’s best interest to actively connect with his or her family members frequently while deployed. Thanks to the internet and some clever new gadgets and apps, there are many great ways you can make deployed service members feel genuinely connected to their family and friends back home.
Here are some great ways to close the distance between you and your loved ones:
- Video Chat Regularly—We use this method of communication all the time to make conversations feel more personal, even if we’re in the same city as the person we’re calling. Naturally, video calling is one of the best ways to stay connected with relatives who are deployed. Note that service members may have internet limitations due to bandwidth or security concerns, and that communication such as this is treated as a privilege. With that said, video chatting should be available, at least occasionally while they are deployed. If your deployed loved one doesn’t have reliable internet, you can always ask him or her to record videos and send them when they’re somewhere with a stable connection.
- Make Crafts with Love—Besides the basic necessities, the first thing a service member packs for deployment is usually something of sentimental value—a photo of his or her spouse and kids or family and friends, or a special stuffed animal, etc. Thus, it’s a great idea to focus on sending thoughtful, personal gifts in your care packages (in addition to personal hygiene, sweet treats and coffee, lots of coffee, of course). For example, you might send your loved one handmade cards or even a shadow box featuring his or her special accomplishments and good memories you’ve shared together.
- Ask For Something Special—Isn’t it funny how wearing, touching or simply owning something of your loved one makes you feel oddly close to that person, even if they’re thousands of miles away? In the military, families often stay connected by wearing custom dog tags with one another’s information. For example, your service member might wear a tag engraved with the names of his children, wife, parents or best friend. You can also ask the deployed military member to leave you with his or her favorite uniform shirt so you feel connected at all times.
- Play Games Together Online—The worst part about being away from someone you love is that you don’t get to simply be together. Nearly every interaction is a conversation during deployment, whereas when your service member is at home, you can do things like watch movies, read, play sports and exercise. Playing online games allows you to feel like you’re doing an activity together with less pressure than a long (sometimes emotionally draining) conversation.
- Try Out Gadgets Made for Long Distances—Digital gadgets are quickly solving many of life’s dilemmas, including being away from loved ones. Now you can buy all sorts of connected “smart” devices that help you feel closer to those who are far away—ringtones that let you feel your partner’s heartbeat in real time, shirts that let you hug each other from afar (seriously) and pillows with built-in speakers that lull you to sleep to the sound of your partner’s heartbeat. There are even long distance lamps that you can touch when you’re missing someone special, sending colorful messages of light across the globe.
- Organize a Group Care Package—Of course, one of the best ways to connect with a service member—and to thank him or her for their service—is to send a care package. Turn to some of the best care package charities, such as Operation Gratitude and Soldiers’ Angels, to put together care packages for your favorite service member or a group of military. Invite all of your family and friends to include a special note and/or gifts in the package to help make your loved one feel extra special and involved in everything that’s happening back home.
- Use Deployment-Friendly Apps—There’s an app for just about anything these days, so why not military deployments? One of our favorites is Sandboxx, an Apple and Android app that lets you send letters to deployed loved ones around the world. Simply type up a message and submit it and Sandboxx will turn every digital message into physical mail that’s sent to your personal hero. You can also install a deployment countdown app that helps you get through long periods apart by monitoring an ever-dwindling time clock.
- Read a Book Together—Another great way to feel like you’re actually enjoying time together (rather than maintaining a relationship strictly through the internet) is to start a sort of no-boundaries book club. Choose a title that interests you both and read it together at the same time. You’ll have something to talk about that doesn’t involve the stressors of everyday life and being apart, and that can be a true lifesaver when times are tough.
Dealing with the Distance of Deployment
It’s important that loved ones and deployed service members are equipped with the resources and tools they need to have a healthy, successful deployment. Make sure to put in a bit of time before your soldier departs thinking about ways you can stay connected. With a little bit of thought and a Wi-Fi connection, you might just feel like you aren’t even apart.